In America, Little Leaguers would be ecstatic to get a clinic from Cal Ripken Jr. In China, they don't even know who he is. So when Ripken went to the country last fall to conduct baseball clinics for kids and coaches, he certainly had his work cut out for him.
That's why the staff at Hunt Valley's Renegade Productions jumped at the chance to film a 60-minute documentary, A Shortstop in China, which follows Ripken, a diplomatic envoy for the U.S. State Department, on his 10-day journey.
"We were never sure what was going to happen," says Chris Beutler, executive creative director at Renegade. "We had a schedule on paper, but a lot of times we just wound up in a field with kids who had never seen a baseball before."
The crew followed Ripken, along with former Oriole B.J. Surhoff, and an MLB official, to Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou as he conducted 11 baseball clinics for 800 Chinese children and 200 coaches. Ripken also met with officials from the Chinese Baseball Association (CBA), and toured the new Olympic baseball stadium Wukesong.
Despite the new stadium, there are only 20 baseball diamonds in all of China, according to the CBA. The documentary captures the novelty of baseball, as Ripken taught the kids his introductory version of baseball, called Quickball.
"He wasn't really a star to them there," Beutler says. "They saw him less as a celebrity and more as a teacher."
At the end of the clinics, students usually wound up giving high-fives to, pelting rubber balls at, and tackling the former shortstop—a comfort level with Ripken that Beutler said would be hard to find at any American clinic.
The documentary also includes interviews with Ripken, Chinese residents on the street, and Karen Hughes, former Undersecretary of State for public diplomacy, who appointed Ripken as the second special envoy (Michelle Kwan was the first). Hughes revitalized the program to improve diplomacy through sport, harking back to the days of "Ping Pong Diplomacy" in the 1970's.
"The State Department saw Cal as a good fit because people in the Chinese culture respect somebody who does their job honorably," says Ripken spokesman John Maroon.
Ripken's clinics came at a very pressing time, as this month's Beijing Olympics could be the last time baseball is played at the Games. But the film explores the idea of China's bolstering economy getting behind the sport, and perhaps producing the next Yao Ming of baseball.
Renegade is currently looking to raise finishing funds for the film and has an opportunity for the documentary to air on Fox Sports Network. As for Ripken, he has high hopes for the impact of his clinics: "We were told that baseball was big in China years ago and I am encouraged that it has a great chance to be popular there once again," he says. "The grassroots, the kids, seem like the right place to start."